Beneath the calm waters of the Cordova Canal lies a rising {industry} – one that gives largely untested promise and potential for financial returns and environmental advantages. In June 2021, Cascadia Seaweed partnered with the Tsawout folks to run a industrial seaweed operation within the waters between Saanichton and James Island.

Cascadia, which already operates a farm in Danvers Inlet off Vancouver Island’s west coast, instructed Capital Each day that they hope their collaboration with Tsawout is the beginning of a brand new enterprise mannequin that advantages the setting.

Algae are an necessary a part of coastal ecosystems: they retailer carbon, present a beneficial supply of meals and function a vital habitat for fish and different marine animals. It’s valued by the Coast Salish peoples, who use it as a disinfectant, nutrient-dense snack, laxative, and agricultural useful resource.

“There are such a lot of teachings and conventional knowledges about seaweed which were handed down from era to era of households who’ve harvested and relied on seaweed,” mentioned Allan Claxton, Tsawout Councillor.

However it’s also more and more appreciated by clients all over the world. The marketplace for seaweed of every kind is now price $15 billion worldwide.

So far, the James Island farm has a 20-kilometer seed line, which Cascadia says may make it Canada’s largest seaweed farm. The last word purpose is to supply client merchandise like seaweed snacks via Cascadia’s personal sea meals model referred to as KOVE.

Nevertheless, the underwater algae fields have thinned out in current a long time. Harvesting, overfishing and local weather change have all contributed to the decline, based on a 2016 research by the Nationwide Academy of Sciences. When seaweed dies, it sinks to the ocean flooring, bringing with it all of the carbon it has sequestered throughout its lifetime. This makes it an necessary side of the ocean’s means to soak up carbon dioxide.

“I have been on the water for over 50 years and have observed a big decline in kelp and seaweed and fish of all species,” says Jesse Thompson of the Snuneymuxw First Nation

Along with the industrial nature of the challenge — which has grown into one of many largest algae producers in Canada, based on Cascadia CEO Mike Williamson — the settlement with the Tsawout additionally consists of the planting of extra algae past these harvested to assist the marine ecosystem return to regular situations.

To this finish, Cascadia distributes palm-sized “pucks” of kelp seedlings within the areas the place they function, which develop into kelp forests. The Firm has already seen optimistic impacts at its Danvers Inlet farm; Thompson says he is seen a return of fish, gulls and black bears to the bay over the previous three years.

Williamson says all of their seaweed — which may be exported as far-off as China to be used as meals and drugs — is sourced domestically.

“James Island is an effective instance. There may be sugar kelp on this space. there’s large kelp, there’s bull kelp,” Williamson mentioned. “So we plant two of the species which can be naturally occurring there anyway.”

A seaweed farm in Bamfield. James MacDonald/Capital Each day

“The alarm bells are ringing”

Whereas Cascadia is touting the potential advantages of its challenge, some consultants say extra analysis is required earlier than kelp farming may be scaled as much as a mass industrial scale — and even then, as with land-based monoculture, any type of farming carried out industrially carries limescale dangers to the setting.

A 2017 research by Norway’s Møreforsking Institute discovered that large-scale operations have the potential to drive out native species and cut back the ecosystem’s nutrient base, resulting in disturbances within the native setting. She concluded that extra analysis is required to search out options to those potential issues. Till then, consultants are calling for the {industry} to work inside its means.

Biologist and activist Alexandra Morton has spent her life defending the BC coast from the dangers of one other {industry} that was as soon as touted as an answer to the depletion of a wild inhabitants: salmon farming

“‘I’ve spent the final 30 years industrial aquaculture the place the entire drawback is scale,’ Morton mentioned. “Had it stayed small and in discrete areas and obeyed sure legal guidelines of nature, I do not suppose there would have been an issue.”

Morton says she sees the identical worrying development in BC’s burgeoning seaweed {industry} as within the salmon {industry}, particularly industrial agriculture posing a danger to built-in microhabitats. Whereas she sees room for artisanal crops and small farms, Morton stays cautious of something larger.

“Once you begin doing one thing on a big scale and use algae from different elements of the coast, you unravel hundreds of years of evolution,” she mentioned. “Once you take a look at this fragile and albeit badly broken set of ecosystems alongside our coast, you take a look at that and also you suppose, ‘Oh, let’s do an enormous monoculture,’ alarm bells go off.”

Another mannequin

Some First Nations are in search of a unique strategy – one they hope can convey financial advantages whereas preserving the encircling ecosystem.

Frank Voelker, band supervisor and financial growth officer for the North Island Kwiakah First Nation, has spent a number of years collaborating with researchers from North Island Faculty and corporations reminiscent of Cascadia to analysis sustainable aquaculture.

In response to Voelker, the purpose is to create an {industry} customary that can be utilized by all algae farmers once they begin industrial manufacturing. He says it will concentrate on creating cooperatives and small farms that may work collectively to supply seaweed whereas protecting every particular person farm small and environmentally sustainable.

“From a analysis perspective, we wish to excellent how one can develop in our area,” he mentioned. “We additionally wish to discover out what’s the carbon sequestration potential of seaweed for those who farm it? There’s an entire lot [few] open questions.”

The Kwiakah have additionally purchased a former fish farm which they hope to transform right into a small seaweed farm within the subsequent few years. For the First Nation, the issue lies within the lack of accessible processing services. The closest processing facility is on Quadra Island, over 70km away, too far-off for it to be economically viable to ship heavy, cumbersome, moist seaweed from the farm. Voelker says the present plan is to construct a pre-processing facility that would scale back the water content material of the seaweed by 60% earlier than transport.

Whereas Voelker is happy concerning the potential of this new {industry}, he stays skeptical concerning the long-term financial viability of seaweed farming and its potential for job creation.

“How many individuals does it take to observe seaweed develop? As a result of the second you plant the seed, there may be nothing to do however monitor till you harvest six months later.”

Voelker additionally emphasised that each one First Nations-industry agreements needs to be below the total management of the nations themselves and that {industry} should not have any say within the growth of finest practices. He mentioned firms can present suggestions on whether or not the practices are working, however can not resolve for themselves what they’re.

“[Companies] are those being examined, they’ve to satisfy that customary and we have now to work with the indigenous regional governments, environmental NGOs and to some extent the provincial authorities on this.”

Tsawout assist

Regardless of the uncertainty, the Tsawout are pleased with the settlement with Cascadia and consider the corporate has the appropriate strategy to sustainability and environmental restoration. In addition they see the deal as a tangible illustration of their treaty rights, which is able to create inexperienced jobs for the nation.

“As First Nations stewards, we should cross on the wealthy ecological data of our ancestors to make sure that financial actions in our marine setting are secure and sustainable,” mentioned Chrissy Chen, fisheries supervisor at Tsawout.

Underneath the 2007 Tsawout First Nation Land Code, the nation is assured land use and useful resource rights over its reservation and the encircling land and water, which incorporates the Cordova Channel and Saanichton Bay. The code is an up to date type of the 1850 Douglas treaties that stripped Indigenous nations of their lands on southern Vancouver Island in trade for conventional searching and fishing rights.

The settlement with Cascadia Seaweed is the primary industrial license granted by the nation for his or her conventional land. Tsawout Elder Mavis Underwood spoke of the nation’s hopes for the challenge.

“Talking for future generations is difficult, however initially it was hoped {that a} partnership with Cascadia would encourage hope and a reconnection with the richness of the saltwater marine setting that the Tsawout First Nation, the STAUTW group, has treasured for generations gotten away,” she mentioned.

Correction on March 30, 2022 at 1:45 p.m.: An earlier model of this text said that the Danvers Inlet farm is situated in Pender Harbor, not Barkley Sound, and that Cascadia had planted 20 sq. kilometers of kelp – as a substitute of 20 km of manufacturing line. Additionally, resulting from a transcription error, the title of a species of seaweed, sugar kelp, appeared as “sugar cow”, which isn’t truly a species of seaweed.